Bio-Inspired Climbing Mechanisms for Prototype This

Dr. Mike North with a pair of geckoadhesive paddles we produced for the show

I was brought in by Beyond Productions to manufacture bio-inspired climbing devices for their show Prototype This.

This project posed a difficult challenge: building a pair of bio-inspired superhero suits that would allow a human being to scale a wall unaided in just two weeks. Working with hosts Dr. Mike North, Zoz Brooks, Joe Grand, and Terry Sandin along with bio-robotics expert Dr. Aaron Parness, I helped design and fabricate both climbing devices.

I worked directly with Dr. Parness and the show’s resident SFX expert Terry Sandin to scale and implement a process for rapidly manufacturing compliant bio-inspired hooks that mimicked the method insects employ to crawl across walls and ceilings. By combining hundreds of these hook mechanisms together, you end up with a device that will dig into the minute texture of any surface you draw it across. Only a small portion of the hooks have to actually catch to provide enough traction to lift a substantial weight. We scaled an ablative machining and casting method developed in Dr. Parness’s lab to manufacture 50 hook mechanisms at a time. These same mechanisms can be found in the NASA LEMUR robot developed at JPL.

The NASA LEMUR robot using the same gripping technology for a proposed Mars exploration mission

The second superpower we replicated was geckoadhesion. Geckos are able to stick to completely smooth surfaces like glass with ease. Strangely, they have no trouble turning the adhesive power of their paws off to reposition them or speed across a vertical wall. This is because the gecko is using a directional adhesion force generated by the millions of microscopic hairs covering each paw. We built a device to replicate this adhesive power using micro-machining and vacuum casting.

We were lucky to have the expertise of SFX pros from Kerner Optical (formerly the physical FX division of Industrial Light and Magic) helping us formulate a silicone and optimize a casting process for capturing the tiny detail necessary to get the geckoadhesive effect out of an artificial material. The process we developed started with a micro-perforated delrin plate dotted with thousands of <1mm holes. Then, we cast a silicone on to the plate, first under vacuum to remove surface bubbles from the plate, then under pressure to reduce the size of any remaining gas pocket to maximize the surface detail captured. When the silicone was cured, it was peeled from the surface of the plate.

You can learn more about the process behind the climbing rig here.